Craig Whitlock followed up his excellent piece on the failings of al-Hurra with a look at al-Qaeda’s own Internet propaganda abilities. Excerpts are below under bolded headings, along with a few of my own niggling comments. The piece, which is worth reading in its entirety, is here.
Al-Qaeda’s Proficiency of Distribution
The war against terrorism has evolved into a war of ideas and propaganda, a struggle for hearts and minds fought on television and the Internet. On those fronts, al-Qaeda’s voice has grown much more powerful in recent years. Taking advantage of new technology and mistakes by its adversaries, al-Qaeda’s core leadership has built an increasingly prolific propaganda operation, enabling it to communicate constantly, securely and in numerous languages with loyalists and potential recruits worldwide.
Every three or four days, on average, a new video or audio from one of al-Qaeda’s commanders is released online by as-Sahab, the terrorist network’s in-house propaganda studio. Even as its masters dodge a global manhunt, as-Sahab produces documentary-quality films, iPod files and cellphone videos. Last year it released 97 original videos, a sixfold increase from 2005. (As-Sahab means “the clouds” in Arabic, a reference to the skyscraping mountain peaks of Afghanistan.)
2 points here:
1. We need to be careful about conflating the ability to disseminate a message with the strength of the message. Al-Qaeda has had some PR problems of its own with regard to its message, particularly regarding the killing of innocent Muslims. Just something to always keep in mind so we don’t start thinking the only thing that can defeat al-Qaeda is kryptonite.
2. Terrorism is about propaganda, so to suggest it has evolved into this is incorrect. It is also incorrect to assume that the only thing we need to do is communicate better on TV and the Internet. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about the counter-narrative. But this is a multi-tool endeavor: foreign policy, CT operations, public diplomacy… all of these things count too. That doesn’t mean we don’t need to get better at communicating, something those prosecuting the War on Terror seem to finally be coming to grips with.
That said… We still have a “Failure to Communicate”
U.S. officials have also acknowledged their inability to counter al-Qaeda’s ideological arguments, despite a multibillion-dollar investment in public diplomacy and covert propaganda efforts aimed at Muslims.
“It is just plain embarrassing that al-Qaeda is better at communicating its message on the Internet than America,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in a speech in November. “As one foreign diplomat asked a couple of years ago, ‘How has one man in a cave managed to outcommunicate the world’s greatest communication society?’ “
No real argument there.
Message vs. Medium
Some U.S. lawmakers are trying to attack the distribution system anyway.
Last month, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, wrote to Google officials, urging them to take down YouTube videos produced by al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. YouTube said that it pulled some videos but that others targeted by Lieberman were not violent or did not qualify as “hate speech.”
Other officials said such an approach was unlikely to be effective because the videos are so widespread and can resurface almost immediately on other sites.
“Initially, that was reflexively the first option people came to –’Let’s not let Osama bin Laden speak’ or ‘Let’s not let the extremists on the Internet,’ ” the senior U.S. counterterrorism official said. “I don’t think that’s possible. Yes, we could go around shutting down Web sites, but it doesn’t really work as a strategic weapon against al-Qaeda.”
Yeah… methinks that approach would be akin to trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.